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Reviews of Science Fiction and Fantasy

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Book Reviews – Science Fiction and Fantasy

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All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

If I can use one term to describe All the Birds in the Sky it would be “uneven”: uneven in tone – sometimes terse, sometimes gaspingly emotional; uneven in language use – careless, even jocular, in places, verbose or poetic in others; uneven in characterization – sometimes complex, sometimes flat, and uneven in the settings – like a mashup of the villages of Midsummer Murders, “Hogwarts” in Harry Potter and the house of the “Pied Piper” team in the TV series Silicon Valley. This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. In preparation for attending the event I am working through the shortlisted works to rank them. So this was No. 2. (Read some more…)

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. I hope to be amongst the attendees at the conference, which is the oldest and biggest in the world for Science Fiction (SF). In preparation for that I am working through the shortlisted works in the categories of novels, novelettes, novellas and short stories. Reading the nominated novels has been an adventure so far since I do not know any of the authors, other than China Miéville. The first novel I tackled, A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, has been like a breath of fresh air. It seemed different from the established and well-regarded types of classical SF writing. It did one thing I have never experienced when reading a SF novel: it brought a lump to my throat. I almost cried. I actually, for once, felt for the characters. That is quite an achievement, considering that the characters are all AI machines, re-engineered humans or species of non-human sapient life forms. (Continue reading…)

J – A Novel, by Howard Jacobson

Sometimes a novel just flummoxes me. I have tried my best to get to grips with “J” by Howard Jacobson, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but the novel made me feel vaguely worried and confused while I was reading it. That was probably the author’s intention, since those sort of feelings drove him to write it. It is set in a Britain of the near future, at a time after a calamitous global event. This event is called “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” or “Twitternacht” (with reference to “Kristallnacht” and Twitter.) As a result of this event, many people got killed, or were forced to move to other countries or back where they came from; everybody got given random, different names (oddly spelled), social media was banned and art was reduced to inoffensive, pleasing aesthetics so as not to arouse any extreme emotions ever again. The protagonists are “Kevern”, a carver of Welsh love spoons, and his lover, “Ailinn”. (Continue reading…)

The Return of the Young Prince, by A.G. Roemmers

The Return of the Young Prince, by A.G. Roemmers

Alejandro Guillermo (A.G.) Roemmers wrote The Return of the Young Prince, based on The Little Prince, in 2000 in his mother tongue, Spanish. Oneworld Publications published it in paperback and Kindle versions in English on November 3, 2016. This edition was translated from the Spanish by Ollie Brock, with specially commissioned illustrations by Pietari Posti, and a foreword by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s nephew. The hardcover edition is expected out in October 2017. It has already been translated into 16 languages. (Continue reading…)

Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., A Penguin Random House Company, September 24, 2015. Emblem paperback edition (depicted), Aug 09, 2016, 400 pp.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last held no surprises for me. Dystopia set somewhere in the future? Check. All doomed to implode due to typical human weaknesses? Check. Clever advertising references and initially interesting, futuristic products? Check. Ordinary people up against the machines, that brings out the worst in them? Ditto. People stuck in a type of bubble or petri dish situation, every move recorded by Big Brother? Ditto again. Atwood’s latest vision of the future has been overtaken somewhat by developments in technology and many individual aspects have already been depicted in earlier novels and films. However, all the combined features of the dystopian world she has created make for an entertaining creation. I can definitely see this book being filmed, scene by scene. (Continue reading…)

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, Kindle format e-book Anniversary Edition, 25 Oct. 2016, by Open Road Integrated Media, New York, USA.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

This novel, first published 1991, won Ben Okri the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. You might wonder what relevance a 1991 novel has today. Being a Booker Prize winner, it is still important, but is it still good? Does it still have meaning in today’s world, and, moreover, will there still be any connection with today’s readers? The answer is yes. Why? Because it is still so different that it is not possible to pigeonhole it into a genre, and because its subject is both depressing and relevant; desperately poor Nigerians living in a slum, with a spirit-being as a child. It is both astoundingly creative and deeply sobering. (Continue reading…)

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, New York, hardcover, Aug. 9 2016, 224 pages.

The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville

In The Last Days of New Paris China Miéville has invented new words and languages, like he has done in many of his mind-boggling SF works. Reading it made me realize that I simply do not know enough about the SF genre. It was impossible for me to judge it one way or another. A thumbs up or down was out of the question. Why? Because, apart from producing a doozy of an SF adventure, he turns many SF conventions on their heads in this book. It isn’t a Man Booker contender, but is sure is a candidate for every SF literature award out there. (Continue reading…)

Random House, September 8, 2015, 1st Edition

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie

This is part two of the essay about “readability” that I published previously. This time I’m taking a hard look at a novel by the famous Salman Rushdie, called Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights. Dared I say what I really think? Yep, I did.…The essay is on novels that are hard to read and to finish because of one thing or another. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – which eventually turned out to be excellent despite the fact that it is written in a mix of English and Spanish. The other is Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights – a title that feels as long as it feels to get through the book. This novel is typical Rushdie, a modernization of the fairytales of One Thousand and One Nights which was told by Scheherazade /ʃəˌhɛrəˈzɑːdᵊ/, or Shahrazad (Persian: ‫شهرازاد‬‎‎ Šahrāzād), a legendary queen and the storyteller. The impediment here is not the language but that it is an incomprehensible muddle of elements and ideas – very elegantly portrayed – which nonetheless makes it both pedantic and boring. (Continue reading…)

Published in US by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2016, e-book cover

This Census-taker, by China Miéville

(Also listed in Modern Fiction – since I’m not sure what it is.) Like it says on the title page, this novella is mystery fiction. I could not figure out, even though I have read it three or four times already, where it is set or when. On first reading it is short and simple, but somehow seems obscure, and trying to clarify it simply creates more questions. However, I thought it was strangely charming and very, very good. Not his best, since it is on a smaller scale than his previous books, but still, pretty darn amazing. Miéville is a Poet of Sci-Fi. But unlike all the other novels in which he has created secondary worlds that are completely coherent and minutely detailed, from the through-the-looking-glass London in Un Lun Dun, to New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, to Besźel and Ul Qoma in The City & The City, this is an indeterminate, nameless setting. (Continue reading…)

the buried giant_kazuo ishiguroThe Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant is not only memorable, it is also about memory – a quite stunning depiction of memory, love and loss, very precisely observed, and I recommend it highly. It really makes you think; If you cannot remember anything other than the current moment in your relationship, is your love real? If peace is based on collective amnesia, can it last? Is it right for governments to wipe out history, to remove memories of the past, or to repress unpleasant parts of history in order to preserve peace and stability? The important questions that Ishiguro raises in this novel makes it worth analysing and considering at length. (Continue reading…)

S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

Slipcover title, S, which I thought was just a background pattern.

For me, S., by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, takes the Prize for this year’s Weirdest Novel and the one I found most physically difficult to read. J.J. Abrams is in the news right now as the director and co-author of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), but fans might not know of this book, published two years ago. It is a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle, a novel within a novel within a novel. The book itself is designed to look like an old public library book, titled Ship of Theseus, that’s been written by someone called V.M. Straka, complete with different publishing details, like “Winged Shoes Press”, and a Dewey Decimal library sticker on the spine (813.54 – Fiction written between 1954 and 1999). The actual book, called S., after the lead character, is explained only on its sealed slipcase as actually conceived by filmmaker J.J. Abrams and written by novelist Doug Dorst. If you didn’t have the slipcase you would probably be fooled. I was. (Continue reading…)

Originally published 1989. Reissue edition by Harper, April 30, 2013

Originally published 1989. Reissue edition by Harper, April 30, 2013

Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett

There’s something unhealthy about pyramids and the obsession with embalming corpses. Even the last departed King of Djelibeybi, the desert kingdom, thinks it’s stupid. Then the architect and his sons (of the firm Necropolitan Builders) do something strange with the design of his pyramid and the gods become embodied and the heir to the throne, assassin-in-training Teppic, has to come home from Ankh-Morpork to sort it out. While dealing with the confounded palace servants who simply do not listen to him, particularly about the palace toilets. As usual, it is very funny, and the parodies and puns in the people’s names are highly entertaining: Dios the high priest; Ptaclusp, the architect (taclus is old Welsh for neat, tidy, complete); Teppic (the German for carpet is teppich – you know, the flying kind found in places where there are deserts). But there’s some seriousness too, about death and the afterlife and so on, and remember: Nil mortifi, sine lucre. (Meaning: No Death Without Money – the Assassins’ Creed.)

The City & The City, by China Miéville

The City and the CityOn the surface of it, this novel is about two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, existing right beside each other, divided by a line, actual and imaginary. A murder takes place in Besźel, and a detective, Tyador Borlú, is tasked with “crossing over” and solving the mystery. The novel does have the traditional detective novel trademarks – clues, forensics, witnesses, statements, red herrings, etc. etc. But it is about the murder as well as about a man seeing what the other side is like, and trying to figure out who holds the power and who separated the cities – because sometimes the division is a mere cobblestone or two. Borlú gets caught up in the plots of divisionists and unificationists, and those who try to understand what is going on. Those who question the accepted norms have an even worse time than the antagonists. Throughout, you are left wondering: – Is this a metaphor for some place, some time? (Continue reading…)

Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville

Macmillan, London, UK, 2000

Miéville’s magnum opus, Perdido Street Station, is a magnificent tour de force of imagination, the grand experience in which the reader’s reality gets sublimated into the complete, fantastically detailed, spell-binding world of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants. All 710 wonderful, engrossing pages of it. Again, the descriptions so gripped me that I felt I could see, in my mind, Yagharek, the Garuda, who had had his wings cut from his back, Lin, the Khepri artist, who sculpts with her own spit; Isaac, the lumbering scientist with wildly teetering emotions, the Weaver, who snips and weaves dreams and reality for the sake of beauty; the slake-moths, with their hypnotic wings; and all the weird and wonderful imaginings of China Miéville’s prodigious and astonishingly creative mind. (Continue reading…)

Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett

Reaper ManPratchett solves the problem of writing appealingly about death by making death one of the most popular and fantastical characters in his Discworld novels – “Death”, a.k.a. Mr. Bill Door. Reaper Man is part of the Death Series, others being Mort and Soul Music. Death (capital D) is a non-negotiable kind of guy. Whenever he appears to someone as a seven-foot skeleton, and talks to them in capital letters, they are dead already (with the exception of Reaper Man, in which he becomes, temporarily, mortal). He knows everything there is to know about the soon-to-be-dead – their life spans, the manner of their deaths, and what they were hoping for after life. A Valkyrie and feasting in the halls of Åsgard anyone? A long walk into a black desert? A reunion with the lover of your youth? (Continue reading…)

unseen-academicalsUnseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett had a similar fearless attitude about his own demise, and a similar scathing attitude towards leaving legacies. Also, Pratchett loved appropriating and playfully twisting cultural references, particularly, famous lines from poetry and plays. So reading his novels is a bit like playing literary Cluedo, with evidence hidden all over for the well-read reader to discover. If you want to know what Pratchett though about, Life, Death, the Universe and Everything (to borrow from Douglas Adams) then read his novels again and look deeper. Authors often work their philosophies and beliefs into their novels, speaking through characters or narrators. Some, like William Gibson, go one step further and take the guesswork out of it by explaining all in a collection of essays. But I must say, it’s much more fun to play spot-the-allusion with Pratchett’s novels. (Continue reading…)

Making moneyMaking Money, by Terry Pratchett

After Terry Pratchett’s death (my previous post), his daughter Rhianna tweeted from her father’s Twitter account:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The End.” I have been rereading all of the Discworld novels over the past few weeks to remind myself again why I like them, and in doing so, I found out where those words come from. And obvious, it ain’t.  (Continue reading…)

The Long Earth, by T Pratchett, S Baxter

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Leaving a sense of wonder

Terry Pratchett (Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE) died on 12 March 2015. Last week Thursday. He was only 66 years old, much too young to die, and much too early a death for his fans the world over, who were left gasping for just one more Discworld novel. He had written 40 Discworld novels, the first, The Colour of Magic, published in 1983, and the last, the 40th, Raising Steam, was published in 2013. The 41st, The Shepherd’s Crown, is due to be published posthumously in late 2015, by his daughter, Rhianna. Terry Pratchett gave the world the gift of his imagining, Discworld and his many other creations, and he exited this world graciously, trying to the last to do good. More so the pity then, that I did not enjoy his collaboration with Stephen Baxter in The Long Earth half as much as any of his solo novels. (Continue reading…)

StarWars1William Shakespeare’s Star Wars – Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher

Ian Doescher decided there were more similarities than differences between the plots of Star Wars and most of the William Shakespeare’s plays. (Consider Hamlet with his father issues, and Luke and Darth Vader.) And because he loves Elizabethan literature, he wrote the Star Wars story in iambic pentameter, with the blessings of Lucasfilm, no less. You might think that would end up being a dreadful bore, but it’s not. It combines the beauty of the form of Elizabethan verse, its rhythm, formal structure and lyricism, with the comforting familiarity of the Star Wars plot and characters (and without the extended complicated metaphors employed by Shakespeare). (Continue reading…)

Zero History, by William Gibson

Zero historyFaithful readers believe that William Gibson will always mess with your head and that that no novel of his will leave you with your assumptions about human-tech relationships intact. What Gibson writes has been so bleeding-edge that what he describes often becomes reality a few years later. To quote Wikipedia, he is a “speculative fiction novelist who has been called the ‘noir prophet’ of the cyberpunk subgenre. In this 2010 novel – though one hesitates to call it a novel, it’s more like a conceptualization of the flows of information through the international data economy of today, as demonstrated by the interfaces between military-industrial contracting, fashion branding and financial speculation – he messes with your head again. (Continue reading…)

embassytownEmbassytown, by China Miéville

Embassytown and the astonishing politics of language

This is a New Weird novel / thriller / sociological discourse about Linguistics in society, or to be more precise – Semiotics – and even though I have a MA degree in the subject, it really intrigued and challenged me. It is set in a comprehensive, holistic, entirely new created world. I have never read anything like it, and neither have I ever encountered the premise, setting, plot or the language (functions and notions) Miéville has invented for this novel. You have to really pay attention while you read it, and learn – as the characters in the book do – the new language presented to you. Some novels are easily read and quickly forgotten. Not this one. It will stay with you and puzzle and please you long after you have put it down. The basic premise of the novel is this: language – the words we have – are concepts, not meant to literally be the things they represent. (Continue reading…)

day_of_the_oprichnik_by_vladimir_sorokinDay of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik gave me nightmares – literally. The cover shows a bear, with a dagger and a watch – the Russian brown bear being a popular symbol of the pre-Soviet and current Russian Republic. The dagger is a foretaste of things to come in the novel. The watch indicates that this is a day and a night in the life of one oprichnik (Russian: опри́чник, IPA: [ɐˈprʲit͡ɕnʲɪk], meaning man aside. Oprichnik refers to a member of the organisation known as the known as the Oprichnina (1565-1572) an organisation established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to govern the division of Russia and act as suppressor of the internal enemies of the Tsar through murder, rape, torture, terror and theft. This is a day in the life in the future Russia, Moscow, 2028, where the Tsar is God, and once more on the throne, worshipped by a cowed nation. (Continue reading…)

The Wreck of the River of StarsThe Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn

This sci-fi work has been said to have “tour de force character development” and “masterful writing”. I was looking forward to devouring all 480 pages of an interesting proposition – a space ship powered by both Farnsworth nuclear fission engines and sails made of superconducting hoops. It’s worth noting that neither of the two technologies is new. How Flynn applies and expands on these concepts as a narrative device, is quite original though. He juxtaposes the energy source of levitation at the level of space flight (with sails tens of kilometers in length and masts made of aerogel), which has echoes of ancient sea-faring vessels and seamanship, against the modern (in outer space flight terms) Farnsworth engines that replaced the “old-school” form of sailing though the galaxies. This is the core theme and tension of the novel – progression versus recollection; the old crew vs the new…(Continue reading…)

Railsea_by_China_Mieville_Large_270_406Railsea, by China Miéville

There’s no way to prepare the reader for a China Miéville experience – unless perhaps to familiarise oneself with the great writers of Science Fiction and Science Fantasy – Herbert, Gibson, Banks, Peake. The immersive experience is similar; the detailed, cohesive imaginings of new worlds; the leaps of faith required by the reader; the new language and references. In this novel, the acclaimed, prolific Miéville uses trains and rail travel, from the simplest handcars to massive armoured trains, to create a Steampunk tour de force. He turns the normal rules of rail transportation on its head: the land becomes the railsea of the title, the tracks run across this heaving wilderness like bridges… (Continue reading…)

World of TroubleWorld of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters

And it all ends with a…hug?! – Dissecting death in “The Last Policeman” (2014)

In books I and II of The Last Policeman series, by Ben H. Winters, we met the last policeman in question, Hank Palace, “The Thinking Woman’s Crumpet”. In my previous review I said that Winters is an accomplished writer, producing a polished narrative, original imagery and an unconventional approach to end-of-days scenarios. Through neat turns of phrase and unusually prescient observations, Winters paints a restrained picture of the coming end of the world. Rather than blood and guts – though murder is still on the agenda – his view of the apocalypse is pretty realistic and frighteningly normal. Which begs the question: what happens to a first-person narrator when he not only dies but everything else ceases to exist too? (Continue reading…)

Binu and the great wallBinu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong

A style and premise puzzling to Western readers

Su Tong is the writer of the immensely depressing novel Rice, which is about poor Chinese people who make each other even more tormented than they already are, and ends more wretchedly than it begins. This novel (translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt) has much the same effect on the reader, but not only due to the unsympathetic characters and unsettling plot. The text of the bleak and puzzling novel is made difficult to digest by odd use of tone. This novel is as much about the habits, beliefs, geography and peoples of ancient china as Binu’s travails. The subtext of the novel is in effect a description of a Taoist life, characterised strongly by Chinese fatalism. (Continue reading…)

Countdown Citypoliceman_winner-cover_Layout 1The Last Policeman Series by Ben H. Winters

Hank Palace” is the Last Policeman and the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet

  • The Last Policeman (2012)
  • Countdown City (2013)

To my surprise, I liked both books in The Last policeman series rather a lot. I hadn’t read detective novels since I went into a sort of mad Kurt Wallander-marathon a couple of years back and read everything Henning Mankell had written back-to-back. That did it for me, detective novel-wise. So I was a bit loath to take up The Last Policeman. Here’s the thing though: Ben Winters writes plainly but very well, understating rather than overstating; being succinct rather than over-indulgent; trimming his text to leave just enough to keep the reader engaged and intrigued. You can call it elegant. This, combined with his talent for depicting a pre-apocalyptic (or pre-sub-apocalyptic) world with conviction but restraint, makes for an enjoyable, well-crafted mystery. (Continue reading…)

Iain Banks / Iain M. Banks – Review of œuvre

Player pf gamesUsed copy of InversionsTheBridgeHydrogen sonataThe Player of Games (1988),
The State of the Art (1991)
Inversions (1998)
Raw Spirit (2003)
Canal Dreams (1989)
The Bridge (1986)
The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)
The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)
The fictional and sci-fi worlds created by Iain Banks are complex, vast, often complete with new languages, peoples, philosophies, and geographies. Reading Banks is not so much sitting down with a few pages, but days of concentrated immersion. Often you lose track of who is who, which ship with which weird name has done what, and which time it is – in the novel, and sometimes, in your life as well – while you struggle with the book. What you are left with are unanswered questions and images that pop into your head at the strangest times. (Continue reading…)

Oryx and Crakethe year of the floodmaddadamReview of MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

  • Oryx and Crake (2003)
  • The Year of the Flood (2009)

MaddAddam (2013)
Man Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood is famous, celebrated, much awarded, and justly so. One comes to expect that everything she writes will be of superior quality. This particular set of Social Science-Fiction novels features a cleverly constructed, very dark satire of the present day world. It’s Sci-Fi that seems disturbingly plausible and not so far in the future. I read all three, in the right order, and in quick succession. But while the dystopia she describes is interesting and thought provoking, unfortunately for me it began to drag a bit by book 2, and was quite disappointing by book 3. It felt like The Lord of the Rings: – they travel, they fight, they live somewhere for a bit, they travel some more, and so on. (Continue reading…)

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